Dusty Strings makes a variety of Rizzetta hammer designs, including hammers with single-sided heads and hammers with double-sided heads. One of my favorite styles is pictured below.
Stiff shafts and medium weight double-sided heads facilitate advanced percussion and bounce techniques. They also suit a wide range of string spacings, and will be a good fit for most dulcimers. The medium size heads have decorative cutouts to lighten them to the ideal weight. Double-sided hammers can be flipped over to change sound while playing. Order direct from Dusty Strings at the link above. Some players rely on the multiple bounces and precise bounce control that these stiff-shafted hammers enable. If that is the way you prefer to play, these hammers might be all you ever need. However, there are always compromises. For those who want to explore more beautiful tones, I developed flexible hammers.
Rizzetta Carbon Flexible Shaft Hammers
Carbon Flex-Shaft Hammers are my favorites, and I use them almost exclusively. They have flexible shafts and specially shaped heads that actually tune the striking surface. When these features are combined in the right proportions, flex hammers produce really wonderful tone and volume. With most dulcimers, the result is a noticeably more musical sound with great clarity and projection.
For someone already accustomed to stiff shafted hammers, flex hammers may take a little getting used to. Use them exclusively for a day or two and they begin to feel normal.
The shafts are carbon fiber laminated with a special aircraft/marine grade resin and cured under vacuum pressure. The handles are carved from select woods and bonded to the shafts with epoxy. Keep in mind that I constantly refine designs and experiment with woods, so the hammers you receive might look slightly different than hammers in pictures or my older hammers.
Hammer handles will be various woods depending on my choice of what is in the shop. Some sets will have one solid wood and some sets might have contrasting laminations. Hammers are available with different striking surfaces for different tone. Carbon hammers are shipped in a hard plastic case. Keep your hammers in the case when not playing to avoid damage.
My friend Nicholas Blanton makes carbon hammers of similar design; Nicholas Blanton Instruments. Details may differ, and his prices tend to be more affordable. He is also now making E-Grip hammers. They are more plain in woods and finish to keep price lower, but they function and play as well as mine.
E-Grip Information and Instructions
Carbon Flex Hammers were made with with conventional American thumb and forefinger grip, shown above, or with my E-Grip, an ergonomic, two-finger rotated cymbalom-style grip that is shown in the photo series below. It can make dulcimer playing more manageable for those with carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, arthritis, or thumb problems. Some players use it just because they find it more comfortable. A similar grip is common among the virtuoso players of the near east and cymbalom players of eastern Europe. If you are suffering any hand or wrist problems when you play, try these hammers at one of my workshops. They have allowed many musicians to continue playing the hammer dulcimer despite physical problems.
On most American dulcimers, E-Grip hammers play and sound best with carbon flex shafts. But they are costly to make. So, for the benefit of those who really need an ergonomic grip in a more affordable form, I developed E-Grip Bamboo hammers with simple, semi-stiff bamboo shafts. Although not the equal of carbon E hammers, they sound good and play well. They are handy as spares or as E-Grip starters for those on a budget. The stiff shafts require heavier heads to function well with an E-Grip, so tone is slightly more thumpy than flex hammers. You might like them. Just be aware that the carbon flex hammers are lighter in the hand, play with more ease, and produce more volume.
E-Grip hammers are held a bit differently than the conventional American thumb-and-forefinger grip hammers. Note that there is a left-hand hammer (may be marked L or red) and a right-hand hammer (R or green); they cannot be interchanged side-to-side and play correctly.
Then the wrist is rotated so that the hammer head is vertical to the strings, as shown. Your knuckles will be at about a 45º angle to vertical, higher toward the thumb. You can play with the heads vertical, or you can try playing with them slanted slightly if that feels better for you. They will play and sound the same as long as the angle off vertical is not too extreme. Some players find that rotating more than 45º (up to 60º) provides less stress on the wrist.
The thumb can be used optionally if a more firm grip on the hammer is desired. This will even prevent hammers from being blown off target when playing outdoors in windy conditions.
For a very secure grip that requires no effort or strain at all, move the hammer farther up toward the knuckles as far as the hammer handle will go.
The hand can be held in a natural loose claw position with no gripping effort or tension at all. This position causes the least finger strain or stress and is very secure. The playing action can be from the wrist or forearm, or a combination of both. The hammers can even be moved up and down by merely clenching the fingers toward the palm, if you are able to do that. Try that If you need to minimize wrist or arm motion. Rotating the hands more, somewhat greater than 45º (up to about 60º), works particularly well with this handle position. This "claw" or "knuckle position" is my favorite when playing outdoors in wind. Your hammers can get blown off target with other grips, but not this one!
HAMMER TONE AND PLAYING ACTION:
Hammer Shafts: Stiff Versus Flexible
Hammers with very stiff shafts, usually wood, are good for playing the widest variety of percussion techniques. They make it easier to control precision bounce effects. All else being equal, they produce a tone that is more “thumpy” than flexible hammers, although head weight also plays a part. There is also a greater amount of percussive “noise” relative to musical pitch. Some players like this percussive effect. Historically, early American hammers were mostly semi-flexible. But I developed and introduced stiff hammers around 1970 because of their advantages with some percussion and bounce techniques, and they have been popular with American players ever since.
Shafts that are very flexible generally provide the most musical tone. There is less “noise” and “thump” relative to sound at musical pitch and they sound "richer." After countless experiments and side-by-side listening and recording tests, Carrie Rizzetta and I feel that very flexible hammers sound more attractive and “musical.” And more often than not they also produce the greatest volume of sound. While some may disagree, and hammers do vary greatly, this is our judgement based on our long playing experience and feedback from players who hear the difference. I generally supply hammers with the degree of flexibility that produces a sensible balance between tone and durability. I can sometimes supply Carbon Flex Hammers with a bit less flex for those who prefer that feel.
Head Weight and Single-sided Versus Double-sided
Head weight also influences tone and playing. My single-sided heads are relatively light weight while my double-sided heads are a heavier, medium weight. All else being equal, heavier heads produce a deeper, rounder tone that is a bit more thumpy, while lighter heads produce a brighter, sharper, more pure tone with minimal thump. For playing feel and all-around tone, the ideal weight is neither too light nor too heavy. Light heads can be padded to be less sharp and bright; heavier heads can have harder pads (or no pads at all) to create a sharper and brighter tone. Heavier heads also bounce at a slower, more controllable rate making them nice for some bounce techniques. Shaft flex should suit head weight. My carbon shafts are optimized for the ideal medium head weight. For smaller dulcimers, heavier heads might bring out a deeper sound. Large, deep sounding dulcimers sometimes sound most attractive with light weight heads that have some padding. My carbon hammers are supplied with a well-balanced head of medium weight.
Tone is even influenced by the width and thickness of the striking surface. For my dulcimers I prefer a relatively wide, thin surface which tunes the heads in a way that promotes a slightly warmer and less sharp tone. A softer playing touch will also trend in that sound direction, but there are times when you just have to hit that dulcimer hard and play loud! Again, a softer pad will lessen the sharper tone of narrow hammers.
Some of the design features I’ve discussed may have a rather subtle effect on tone. However, they can add up to an audible and useful difference.
Suiting the Dulcimer
All the hammer design features must be combined to suit the dulcimer, the weight and resistance of the strings, and the intended playing styles. My hammers are well suited for my dulcimers, Dusty Strings dulcimers, and most American dulcimers. In other parts of the world with other dulcimer design traditions, hammers may be different to suit. For instance, large, heavily strung European cymbaloms are played with long, semi-flexible hammers with heavy, wide, and well-padded heads. Modern Chinese dulcimers are large and lively in tone but strung more lightly than cymbaloms. They are played with very flexible, very light weight hammers with narrow padded heads to keep them from being otherwise harsh and thumpy. And most Persian santurs are small with very light strings, requiring delicate light hammers to make them sound agreeable.
Fitting the Dulcimer: Length of Head Striking Surface
The length of the striking surface should fit the string spacing of the dulcimer. The head should be long enough so that it will not drop down in between two adjacent string courses. For the most part, the string spacings of American dulcimers vary from about 1 inch to about 1.2 inches. My hammers are made to fit this range. Heads with a relatively straight striking surface tend to fit a wider range of dulcimers, which is why mine are designed that way.
Although I may have pioneered the use of stiff hammers, I do like the sound of extremely flexible hammers. And, with the correct flexibility, head weight, and handle balance, the flexible hammers will play easily and still allow lots of percussion techniques. Today I play almost exclusively with carbon flex hammers and supply them for many performers.
Why carbon? It is possible to make flexible hammer shafts from cheaper materials like plastic, spring steel, or even bamboo. But these materials are either heavier or not as durable. And none of them provides the combination of flexibility with quick damping that carbon does. After the carbon shafts flex, they return to their original at-rest position faster than other materials, making it easier to play with both power and accuracy. The same attributes that make carbon the best material for high quality fishing rods also applies to flexible dulcimer hammers.
You may notice some minor differences in the shafts of different pairs of my hammers. The precise flexibility is determined by the fiber and resin content, thickness, and width of each shaft. Since shaft thickness can vary slightly between sets of hammers, the flexibility is fine-tuned by machining the width of each pair of shafts until the ideal flexibility is reached.
Flexibility can be controlled to produce different playing goals. For a given hammer head weight, more flexibility will produce a slightly brighter, more pure tone, and a slower more controllable bounce that suits playing with a softer touch. Less flexibility produces a slightly deeper, rounder tone, and the hammers can be driven harder for those who play with a heavier touch. As mentioned earlier, head weight (and padding) can also be varied to fine tune the tone. I generally supply carbon hammers with medium flexibility and medium head weight to suit all-around use with the greatest versatility.
Care of Carbon Hammers
Although carbon hammer shafts are moderately strong and durable, they are probably more delicate than stiff hammers. It is possible to break them, especially if they are bent too sharply or if someone sits on them! Keep them in a hardcase when not in use, and don’t let other people fool around with them without instruction or supervision. Small plastic fishing tackle boxes make handy hammer cases.
If you break a shaft on my older, wood head hammers, DO NOT throw the hammer away! A new shaft can be spliced into the old head and handle. Although costly, repairs will be less expensive than new hammers. You must send both hammers of a pair back for restoration, even if you only broke one. I will have to carefully match the flexibility of the repaired hammer to the good hammer so that they match in playing action. The new generation of hammers, with shafts and heads molded together, cannot have a broken shaft repaired or replaced. But they are less likely to break.
Don’t let the hammers get stored in a twisted or bent shape for long or the shafts may become deformed. Keep the hammers away from heat which can do the same thing. If you need to restore a hammer shaft to original shape just hold it near a warm incandescent light bulb while twisting it back into shape. Warm slowly, carefully, and gradually. If your hands can stand the heat for several seconds, then it is okay for the hammers too. The resin in the shaft will soften and the hammer can be twisted or formed back to proper shape. Then remove the hammer from the heat while continuing to hold it to the proper shape. In a few minutes it will cool and hold shape. This process can be repeated any number of times to get the shape just right. If the shaft springs back to its previous shape rather than holding shape when cooling, then a bit more heat or longer heating is needed. It is best to start with too little heat and work slowly up to more heat until you achieve the proper results. About 125 to 140 degrees F are required.